HOW Creative Inspiration—DIE EMPTY: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day

Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from Chapter 3. Reprinted from DIE EMPTY: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day, by Todd Henry with permission of Portfolio, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright (c) Todd Henry, 2013.

The Siren Song of Mediocrity

Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go. 


Principle: Mediocrity doesn’t just happen suddenly; it develops slowly over time.

Todd Henry, DIE EMPTY

Todd Henry (c) Jonathan Robert Willis

Every brilliant achievement begins with a hunch. It’s a deep, ineffable knowledge that something great could happen, could be brought into existence, could change the status quo. It doesn’t matter if it’s the synthesis of string theory or a flawless and innovative execution of this quarter’s marketing strategy; all innovations begin as a subtle and intuitive flash in the nether regions of your mind. Perhaps, if you’re aware enough to notice it, this insight takes hold and yields useful energy and enthusiasm as you imagine its potential. You entertain it for a while, considering its implications and thinking through how you might make it happen. But your enthusiasm quickly wanes as other forces begin to take hold of you. These are the forces that contribute to stagnancy and self-preservation. They cause you to second-guess your intuition, become obsessed with the reasons the idea would be too difficult to act upon, and inevitably compromise. Over time, that initial, promising hunch fades into the mist, sometimes replaced by a new one, but often lingering like a splinter in your mind that you can’t quite shake.

Why does this happen? Why are so many discarded ideas, projects, and opportunities tossed to the roadside, replaced by something easier, safer, and more imminent? Why do so many people start strongly and with such hope, but succumb over time to the siren song of mediocrity?

When we start our career or an exciting project, everything is new. We throw ourselves into the work with full vigor, because we know that we need to prove our worth to our manager or clients. In some ways, it’s like a new dating relationship. We put our best foot forward because we want to win the respect and approval of our potential partner. However, over time familiarity sets in and some of the aspects that once seemed new and exciting become predictable and mundane. The tasks we perform no longer stretch us, and some of them we can even do on autopilot. We’ve lost the thrill of the challenge.

This dynamic is not only present early in our career. It’s a cycle that we will go through many times as we take a new job, assume new responsibilities, and settle in for the ride. In each of these situations, we at first feel stretched by the new tasks in front of us, but we gradually adapt to expectations and develop the capacity to deal with them. This growth cycle is rapid and steep early in our career, when we are constantly facing unfamiliar challenges and in need of developing new skills to deal with them. However, as we progress in our career and accumulate more knowledge, there are fewer experiences that instinctively spark our curiosity and challenge us to rise to the occasion. We quickly grow stagnant, relying on our existing skills to perform our work. These skills may be sufficient, and, depending on how innately talented we are, may even earn us a great amount of respect in our industry, but deep down we know that we’re not doing our best work. We know that we’re coasting. We’ve succumbed to mediocrity.

More HOW Resources for Creative Inspiration:

The Accidental CreativeWant tips for avoiding the pitfalls of mediocrity? Learn to embrace risk in your design career. Check out Die Empty in its entirety and The Accidental Creative for more creative advice. 

Get more material from Todd Henry, including his 2013 HOW Design Live In-House Keynote presentation, at My Design Shop